Menopause usually occurs in women once they’ve reached their 40s or 50s, at which point a series of hormonal changes results in the cessation of the menstrual cycle. Officially, menopause begins one year after the last menstrual cycle. However, menopausal symptoms often begin much earlier than that and may continue for some time after. There are many treatment options available today for women who find menopause difficult or uncomfortable. Although it marks the end of being able to bear children, it does not mean a woman need consider her sexual life “over.” It does, however, come with some increased risks of particular medical difficulties.
Every woman experiences menopause differently. Some women may experience few to no symptoms—although they are the exception not the rule. In general, there are an array of signs that can clue a women into the beginning of menopause, a period known as “perimenopause.” Perimenopause often begins with irregular periods or spotting and less severe versions of the symptoms of actual menopause. Periods may change in frequency, duration, or intensity. Menopause, in addition to the eventual cessation of the menstrual cycle, is marked by a combination of any of the following in varying degrees:
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings or changes
- Vaginal dryness
- Lowered metabolism
- Weight gain
- Thinning of hair
- Dry skin
Menopause is a natural, biological occurrence. As a woman grows older, the ovaries begin to make less and less estrogen and progesterone. Since these are the hormones responsible for controlling the menstrual cycle, as there becomes less of them so to does their become less menstruation.
However, some chemotherapies and radiation treatments may cause permanent or short-term menopause. Menopause can also begin following a total hysterectomy and oophorectomy, the removal of the uterus and both ovaries. Primary ovarian insufficiency can cause menopause to begin in women from a younger age than usual, often for no known cause.
In the case of primary ovarian insufficiency, hormone treatment using estrogen and/or progestin is usually recommended until the proper age to help hold off the potential long term complications that can arise following menopause. This can also be helpful for women who experience severe cases of hot flashes. Estrogen is also available as a tablet, cream, or vaginal ring that can be inserted or applied to the vagina to help relieve the dryness caused by estrogen. Selective serotonin uptake inhibitors, a type of antidepressant, can also be useful for women who cannot use hormone therapy or for whom mood changes are also a problem. Your doctor can you help you decide which one is best for you.
Certain very serious and sometimes embarrassing conditions can be more likely to affect women following menopause. In some cases, doctors may also provide treatments for these as well. Urinary incontinence can be a problem as vaginal tissues begin to lose strength and flexibility. Bone density may begin to decrease quickly in the years following menopause, increasing the chances of developing menopause without preventative treatment. The weight gain from a decreased metabolism caused by menopause can be dangerous if left unchecked, which is especially problematic considering the increased chances of cardiovascular disease after menopause. Diet and exercise becomes even more important in the later years of life, for a whole host of reasons.